Thursday, November 15, 2012

The wonderful world of Tomson Highway

Award-winning playwright, author and pianist Tomson Highway performed at Douglas College last week to a packed house. Highway - whose play The Rez Sisters runs at the New West Campus till Saturday - took a few minutes to chat with doug about his love of languages, his hatred of being told what to do and exactly who should be mounting his plays.

Interview and photo by Tamara Letkeman, doug Editor

doug: You gave an interview several years ago where you said you were angry or frustrated with the English language because it didn’t allow you to express yourself the way you could in Cree. Have you since made peace with English?

TH: In fact I’ve left it. I no longer speak it. I speak French now. I live in France six months of the year and in French Ontario the other six months, so I hardly ever speak English anymore.

doug: Do you still write in English?

TH: I am writing more and more in French.

doug: Really?

TH: Yeah. I am slowly gradually, transforming into a French writer.

doug: What other languages do you speak?

TH: Cree, Dene. I come from Northern Manitoba on the Nunavut border, which is Dene territory. It just so happened that my father fell in love with the land up there and moved there, so we are Cree people who lived on Dene territory. So our village was bilingual to begin with. And then of course we learned English at school. Then later I learned French. But what I call my other language, what I call my third language, is music. And I am talking about music literally to the point where you know the repertoire from the inside out – I’m talking the language of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin. Like seriously, from the inside. To know the late Beethoven sonatas intimately. To know how to play them. To be able to analyze them and so on and so forth.

doug: And you’re learning Spanish as well?

TH: I am learning Spanish as well. It is my dream to, by the end of my life, be fluent in all of what I call the four languages of American colonialism. When I say American I am talking North America, Central America and South America, so the next and the last two will be Spanish and Portuguese. I’ve already spent enough time in Brazil to have started Portuguese as well.

doug: You have a gift for languages.

TH: Well, no, it’s not a gift. It’s a privilege that you give your child. You know, there is a muscle inside of the human brain that is put there specifically for the purpose of absorbing sound, and the earlier you exercise it, the earlier you develop that muscle and the more capable it becomes as an adult. If by the time you are 10 you speak three languages, it means that that muscle is highly trained. Like the muscles of a gymnast, OK? It will do extraordinary feats of physical strength and agility. The younger you are the better. That’s the importance of immersion schools. It’s not that the French language is that important or Chinese or whatever, it’s the exercise, it’s that muscle that’s important. So the older you get, if you don’t exercise the muscle, it atrophies. So if you are unilingual by the time you reach 40, then you are pretty well cursed to be unilingual for the rest of your life unless you do something extraordinary, which is what some people have done.

doug: I want to ask you about The Rez Sisters. For a time it seemed theatre companies would not touch your work because they were afraid of doing an aboriginal play without using an all-aboriginal cast. What’s your take on this?

TH: My position is that first of all I don’t believe in mind control, thought control. Artists should be able to do what they want to do. That’s my bottom line. A writer should - you know writing is so difficult, and carving out a career as a writer is so difficult, so challenging, so impossible. You meet so many impasses that you should let a writer just do what they want to do. Don’t try to stop them. Don’t try to slow them. Encourage them to fly and to fly as high as they can. So my bottom line is those plays should be done by black actors in Nigeria. They should be done by Turkish actors in Istanbul. They should be – they have been - done by Japanese actors in Tokyo. They should be done by Zulu actors in Durban, South Africa.

doug: Have you always felt this way?

TH: Yes. I really bristle at anybody who tells me what to do, how I should think, how I should write. That idea to me is - I don’t want to say the word, it’s too strong. It’s fascism. Thought control.

doug: Will you tell us what you are working on right now?

TH: No, I can’t.

doug: It’s a secret?

TH: Most writers will tell you that if you talk about what you are writing, you jinx it. It will never be published, or it will never be written or something will happen that will prevent it from ever seeing the light of day. I am writing a novel - that’s all I can say.

doug: You have accomplished so much. Do you have any other goals?

TH: My dream in life has always been to have a good time, to be surrounded by the sound of human laughter. It’s my favourite sound in the world, so I would do anything to hear it.

The Rez Sisters runs till Saturday, Nov. 17, at the Laura C. Muir Performing Arts Theatre, Douglas College, 700 Royal Ave., New Westminster. Tickets ($8-$12) are available through the Massey Theatre, 604 521 5050.